Wednesday, April 1, 2009

I was in a large gymnasium of ...

I was in a large gymnasium of sorts, doors out to a hallway surrounding, with rooms and such beyond the halls. The room was completely filled, with people, and they were intensely debating some topic. I was fairly dis-interested in the topic at hand, but most others were: "raging" is how the debate proceeded.

Then at one point, one man piped up and said that he and a bunch others had an idea: They didn't have to come to a consensus. Those who agreed with him were just going to walk away and let those who wanted to cling to the opposing view stay by themselves, alone.

At this point I spoke up, infuriated. "This we must not do!" I said doing so would be absolutely selfish, would destroy us all, etc. I said that it was absolutely essential that we continue to care about people unlike ourselves, and about working things out. We had to care about working it out. I spoke myself hoarse, but did not stop.

Most people left the room through the door on the left, a couple stayed and smiled at me, a few stayed because of their stand on the topic of debate. Nearly all left.

Then, hope beyond hope, many of those who left began returning! But despair, they only returned to leave through the door on the right instead.

Now silence, and people milling about in the halls, lost and individually.

I left.

On my way out I passed an old friend in the hall, who spoke to me of courage and I hit my friend in the face, accompanied by a brief lecture on being spineless and not standing up for what's right. Then I went to the bathroom to collect my things.

In the bathroom I found my change of clothes, and hangers -- possibly 1000 hangers, all in a jumble, all over the floor and the counters. An observer mentioned that I would need an insane amount of luck to get all those hangers out with me. I replied "Oh, you have no idea.... Providence and I are very good friends." The hangers collected themselves into a ball, all inter-latching, with only one hook protruding. I took hold of the hook and walked out the door.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Poke Your Finger Here

Part 1
On my vacation (yes, it was nice, and long), I wrote an essay about the financial crisis. Upon re-reading it, it struck me as a little odd: It appeared to start one place and end a completely different place -- apparently even a different topic. Further, every attempt to rewrite it, refocus it, etc. all resulted in me going back to the weird one and me thinking "no, this is how I want to write it." Yet, I couldn't quite put my finger on why or what exactly the essay was even about: the first part or the second part?

So I shelved it. I have other ideas, there are other things to write.

I drafted some other essays for this blog, worked through some ideas in my head, and then suddenly the resonance broke in and I realized that all my essays shared the same oddness as the financial crisis one. I pulled it out, and realized I'd written the same essay over and over in my head, just on different topics.

What you'll see in Part 2 is the essay on the financial crisis - matured. What I want you to see is that this is the essay that I would write on the financial crisis. Then, replace all the financial context in the begining portion with the obvious appropriate context words for personal decision making, and you'll read the essay that I wrote about personal decision making. Then replace all the words again and see that it is actually the essay that I would write if I were to write about each of:
  • our personal moral fabric,
  • the moral fabric in our communities,
  • the moral fabric in our nations,
  • the 60s,
  • the "sexual revolution,"
  • monetary policy at all scales,
  • conflict across countries,
  • conflict in our societies on principles etc.
  • conflict in our communities,
  • conflict within our individual person,
  • personal responsibility,
  • cultural responsibility,
  • community responsibility,
  • the relationship between church and state,
  • self-worth issues in individuals and communities,
  • etc.
  • The list is quite long, I gave up on listing them all.
For each of those, re-look at the essay in Part 2 and see how it resonates with you. Next comes the question: why? Why is the same essay actually the essay that I would write for such a broad set of fundamental issues? I don't know, you tell me.

Part 2
The observers say we're in a financial downturn of sorts, and this is no news to you. There are reasons for this downturn:

1) Typical Errors in the Fundamentals. History shows that people have a tendency to make optimistic decisions in times of apparent "good times" -- and also in these times they have a tendency to ignore warning signs. This is typical of humanity, and demonstrates itself this specific round in housing investments (by parties on all sides of the fences), debt ratios, debt risks, spending as much as we hoped to make instead of how much we really made, etc. Also there have been the expected instances of people attempting to fraud others, and people being defrauded.

This is life -- it's always been this way. The typical results, demonstrated historically, of such behavior usually include a "downturn" aka a "correction" aka "the natural consequences." And yet, this instance may appear a bit different from past ones for these reasons:

2) Reduction of Insulation. Stocks in the US go severely one way, and those across the world go the same way. Someone in a far off country defrauds some folks and it influences the markets globally. Steel is cheaper to buy than to make, and I hope we never need to make tanks again -- or at least, I hope all our friends always find it convenient to stay our friends, because a country that can't support itself is a helpless whelp relying on the mercy of others. But we're not the only ones: going global is the "in thing" and we're all so inter-connected now that we have only one situation: the butterfly in the Sahara takes us all down. There are no firewalls anymore. Makes for a free flow, for better or worse. Gone are the days of: when the general store fails, we all hike to the next town since that store is not owned and operated by the same folks as this one. Now, things are made cheaper, distributed farther, and we have numerous types of tomatoes, and they're all cheaper than growing them ourselves. Hope the tomatoes don't get a disease.

3) The Press. As Cosmo explained, he who controls the information, controls everything. The housing situation is a classic example. Sure, it is/was an issue and I'm not denying that at all, but there certainly were lots more options for resolution that would have hurt a whole lot less. That is, until the someone yelled "Fire." When the press calls it a crisis, it becomes one -- doesn't matter if it was or not, or if broadcasting it is the best thing to do. But who can blame the press? They're just printing "what sells the papers." It's our fault for buying them. "Nooo," you say, "they just call it as they see it." Well then, I know where responsibility lies in that case. Today's media is a mix of those: we're buying garbage, and people are crying Fire. Nobody is deciding what voice they should listen to. Stampedes, exacerbating everything, and indirectly closing doors on all better solutions -- that's the way we like it: hot.

Combined we have foundationless fundamentals, no insulation, and a symphonic cacophony shouting Fire. No wonder the house burns down. No wonder children die in the flames.

Still, this has happened before. History shows this is typical. Why don't we learn? Answer: That "downturn" piece.

The downturn isn't impacting correctly: The responsible and prudent are taking lots of hits, and the irresponsible appear to be escaping, for the most part. There are lots and lots of people, including many I know personally, who are unwarrantedly getting hit hard this round. This, is frustrating at times. It hits home, to the gut.

King Guezo (who ruled in Benin from 1818-1858) had a symbol of a jar with holes in it. He said "Our freedom can be compared to a jar with many holes, which cannot hold water. If each one of you, the sons of this nation, can put his finger in one hole, the jar will hold water." But today I'm not talking about freedom.

I saw a bumper sticker the other day: "I'm a Republican, because we can't all be on welfare." Now, I don't classify myself as either a Republican or a Democrat, and further, this essay is not about monetary policy. But the quote is relevant: Somebody needs to stick their fingers in the holes. What I'm talking about today is a deficit, a qua-billion quid international deficit: And it's face is people not putting their fingers in the holes. Remember the burning house rendering above? I'm saying it's nobody's fault. And yet....

Let's each put our fingers in the jar, because we can't all let someone else do it.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

True Pains

This post has been hard for me to write: because the truth hurts. I'm hopeful that putting "to paper and posting it on my wall," will help raise my living closer towards being in line with these truths.

I was told once that "There are two types of pain...." but today I'm going with four.

The Wrong Two
The first type is physical pain in our body, e.g. my cut finger, my broken let, my headache, my arthritis, my hunger, etc. The second is pain caused by things outside of our control, e.g. people being mean to me, the storm knocking the tree into my house, my sister getting shot at the convenience store by a robber, etc.

These two types of pain get lots of attention. There is much wisdom abounding in our society and in our books on the topics of helping us deal with these two (and also some great medications). But that doesn't make it easy: each of us has very real challenges in these areas, some more than others and each his own flavor. I adamantly admit that they are both very difficult and challenging parts of life, for sure.

I love to focus on pain of these two types. Part of why I love to focus on these is because they provide an escape from the other two types of pain, and they support an illusion that these types explain why I'm unhappy. But it's also important to recognize that neither of these types of pain have any influence on our happiness. [And before I get chewed out, those who know me know that I am familiar with significant pain, but I'll be the first to tell you that there are many who have pain much worse than what I live with, and I respect that. My comment here, read correctly, in no way disrespects anyone's pain.]

True Pain: Part One
The third type is pain caused by me "being an idiot." This does not mean pain caused by a consequence of my actions (e.g. my head hurts because I caused a car wreck), it is more pain along the "regret" sort of theme. It's the underlying sensitivity we all have to "making bad decisions" -- as honestly, we all know full well that we do. For me, the reason I focus on the two types of pain in the first category is to escape the reality that I am unhappy and that it's because I'm making bad decisions. The only real way to reduce this pain is to make better decisions, and I think we have a built-in aversion to that. But it's true, and we know it. This type of pain is removed only by us choosing to be better, and that hurts sometimes.

The "making bad decisions" variety of pain is a huge component of the pain currently on this planet and in our society. I have an upcoming post (I may make it two) on this topic. For now, let me say that it is under-appreciated by many, and that we too often try to alleviate this pain by every method possible except for the one method that will alleviate it: changing our actions.

True Pain: Part Two
I hear posed "The best way to solve a problem: Give up." I disagree completely: Giving up is never suitable for the High Order Bits. For things of less importance it may be OK to "let go," but happiness does not come from neglecting the weightier matters in life. Giving up might relieve the pain sometimes, but it doesn't lead to happiness or accomplishment. "Letting go" of something less important in favor of something more important can be wise; but this does not mean we're just giving up.

Do you ever get frustrated in life, wish you could do a better job at X? That's a good sign, it means you're still in the battle, you care, you haven't give up yet. Does it hurt when you see other people make bad decisions? That's a good sign, it means you care. It's not good that they make bad decisions, but it is good that you care about them and the effect of their decisions.

Happiness is not had without The Struggle. There is no joy without loving, without caring, without wanting, and without striving. Unfortunately, striving for better hurts. Caring about how things turn out, hurts. Happiness and joy are not had by the apathetic. I'm not saying we should seek out pain, but I am saying that we should not let pain stop us from pursuing that which matters most. I also, believe in The Struggle.

To finish the quote I was told years ago: "There are two types of pain: pain from being an idiot and pain from caring." The two types of true pain are distinct from the two types in the first section in that, instead of having nothing to do with our happiness, these two types of pain define our happiness.

Our happiness depends on two things: making good decisions and loving, striving, caring. There are two types of pain: pain from being an idiot and pain from caring. Reduce the first. Be strong enduring the second, and do not let it keep you from what you want the most. When do you don't feel it anymore, you're either in timeout (you only get three per quarter) or you're not in the game anymore. Stay in the game.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The High Order Bits

In the number 1375, 1 is the most significant digit and 5 is the least significant. When doing mathematical operations you can do some funny magic by being inconsistent with which end is most significant, as illustrated by the Kettle's:

We actually do this in computer science all the time: given the two bytes 0x0200, we can get very different numbers depending on if the first byte is most significant (it's 768) or the second (it's 3). It turns out that some computer hardware always treats the first as most significant, and some computer hardware always treats the last as most significant. This is known as Endianness and we talk about "big endian" and "little endian" to refer to the two systems. It is absolutely essential that we are careful to make sure that all operations are done in the right endianness. If we're inconsistent, bad things happen.

Another interesting aspect of the Kettle's little performance there is that they are 100% convinced that they are right, and that their son is left speechless -- astounded at what is happening.

Unfortunately, each of us runs into the same situation nearly every day (the frequency is increasing at an alarming pace): someone expressing a point of view which is arrived at by swapping the importance of things, and which too often leaves us dumbfounded and speechless due to their ignorant confusion. What does one say when presented with an argument that is clear and precise (like that of Pa Kettle's) and in which the presenter obviously completely believes is sound and true and correct, and yet we know that they are totally off base? Further, what do we do when we discover that presenting the truth is like trying to straighten out Pa Kettle?

Often, my response is like Pa's son: try a couple times, realize the situation I'm in, and throw up my hands. But what should I do when the topic is an important one? What if the topic is one of critical importance to my country? to my family? to my finances? to my friend's health?

The long-term solution is education. I'm not talking about education regarding the things that are taught in our wonderful primary schools (reading, writing, 'rithmetic, etc.), I'm talking about education regarding 1) things as they really are, and 2) critical thinking skills. Part of this blog is an attempt to stand up and contribute to the educated-ness of the people in this world. But what about the short-term? When a significantly large portion of the population is making arguments like the Kettle's, on topics that are pressing and relevant in our day, what is one to do?

Nobody is "Blind"
From centuries ago comes the philosophical question: If a man is born blind, does he ever really know what it means to be blind? I'm not talking about people's eyeballs here, I'm talking about the "eyes of their understanding." How do we correct the confusion in the world that occurs when people do not realize they are blind?

Personally, I do not believe anyone is totally blind: I believe that all people have the potential to see. But many people do not realize that they are not doing their math right, arriving at bogus solutions via arguments which invert priorities, confuse endianness, and are inconsistent. And how to correctly teach the Kettle's the truth when they have been so well indoctrinated by faulty math? It is easier to educate than to correct mis-education, and it's especially hard when urgency comes into play.

The Good and the Better

There is a lot of merit to the saying that "the Good is the enemy of the Best" but there's also much merit to Voltaire's notion that "Perfect is the enemy of Good." How do we decide which is the right saying to apply in a given case? Well, math saves the day again:

In the number 1375, the 5 is important: It contributes, it should be looked after, it should be taken care of, nobody should say ill of it, nobody should knock it, etc. But the 1 is more important. If you have to be fuzzy or imperfect on one of them, make it the 5 and not the 1. When we swap endianness arbitrarily, math like the Kettles' is the result. To Voltaire and the other wise folk I say: Do your very best on the important things, and be happy with "good enough" on the less important things. There are important issues in this universe, one's that shouldn't be knocked, nobody should speak ill of, etc. But if there are more important issues, than we need less ruckus about the less important ones.


This post is not news to anyone, we all already knew these things. We all know that it's important to prioritize things and to get those relative priorities correct. This post is not a call for more prioritization, it's a call for people to start standing up for the things that really are most important. Many of the most important things are getting eclipsed these days by lots of noise and attention being given to less important things.

Today is the day for those who see things as they really are, to stand and teach. Teach the truth, and encourage people to sharpen their critical thinking skills -- we'll all need as much of that as we can get. Do not be afraid to say that "1 is more important that 5" -- assuming it actually is. There are people who disagree with you on what is most important. How does one know what is actually most important? That post is coming. But if you ask me, I'll tell you straight: 1 is more important than 5.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A Big Boat

I think there are only a few, who can say they've been blogging longer than they've been reading blogs. I am not one of those few. Probably I am a fairly "latecomer" to this blogging bit. How fitting then, that I include a topic I've been thinking about for a very long time: a big boat. And I'm expecting some flaming comments today :)

Bob's Life

I'd like to tell you a little about Bob (name changed). He lived roughly 1000 years ago. First Bob's day, then his life:

Bob gets up in the morning, a bit hungry, not quite having gotten enough sleep, with a bit of a crick in his back from sleeping on it wrong. Bob prepares himself for his day, and then proceeds to spend a fair bit of it doing the things that need to be done in order to improve his shelter and procure food and keep himself warm and generally reduce his discomforts. He looks forward to wrapping this up though, because he's got a few friends that he'll see in the evening,shootin ' the breeze and laughing at the entertaining stunt Wally pulled last week. Bob gets to bed a bit late, with a headache. Tomorrow's a big day: the in-laws are arriving.

Bob started out like most folk: learning how to walk, how to express himself, how to control his anger, how to take responsibility for his actions, and how to make decisions. As he grew, he discovered more of his interests, his likes and dislikes, and started learning more about himself. Dealing with his hormones became a part of his life. His interactions with other people started to get more complex as he found himself feeling kinda funny around that one person, irritated around that other, learning when to bite his tongue and when to let it all out. He learned, by some experience and some guidance from others, when to not hit people, the appropriate way to deal with his anger, and how to show people that he loved them. He set out to do what he wanted to in life, but got distracted by doing what he needed to do to keep food in his belly, to keep himself out of trouble (sometimes), and by his increased responsibilities at home. His body starts to bug him at work sometimes, and at night. He finds he has less patience with the new crop of idiots in town. He's busy as all get out, and wonders if life will ever quiet down for him. He has learned some things, but nobody cares what he thinks anymore. He finds it easy to be grumpy if he wants to be, but he has good memories, still enjoys the sunsets, knows he has made some good decisions in life, and has forgotten many of the bad ones. He's glad that new building in the town center has gone up, he's worked hard on that and it's something he believes will greatly help the community. He's starting to wonder what it'll be like to take his "long winter's nap."

Oh, and Bob lost a leg in the war, many years ago.

My Life and Yours
Bob's life was his own. I have mine, and you have yours. In our day, most lives are remarkably similar to Bob's -- of course with our own flavor. Similar are the lives of people of all countries, persuasions, classes, finances, cultures, etc. All, are people.

Victor Hugo wrote three books which he said were intended to be read together as a group: Les Miserables, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Toilers of the Sea. The last is one of my favorites. The three together paint a picture covering the entire gamut of the human condition. But these are not the only timeless classics, there are many. I see myself, and other people I know, in old classic literature. Why do classic tales, even those much much older than Hugo, connect to people? I posit that it's because we are the same today as we were then. In reading the old tales, fact and fiction alike, I find myself part of a vast body of folks. The human experience is what it always has been, and I'm one of them.

They say that the only sure thing in life is change. I posit today that the most important things in life remain totally unchanged -- the human experience is what it always has been. But today's essay goes beyond that:

It is common to have notions about the personal characteristics of people in other financial/social classes/life situations; this can include notions about intellect, cleanliness, snootiness, pride, grittiness, friendliness, charitable-ness, etc., etc. I posit though, based partly on observation and partly on supposition, that in actuality one's social and/or financial status has absolutely zero predicting power on one's ability to deal with anger, one's inclination to pride, one's inclination to be shy, one's marriage enhancing skills, one's charitable tendencies, etc. etc. Look around honestly, and tell me if that's not what you see.

The point today is that not only is life the same as it always has been, it's also the same for me as it is for the rich folk in one end of town and the same as it is for the poor folk at the other. And it's the same for the people in Sweden as it is for folk in the Ivory Coast, as it is for the people in Mexico, Japan, etc. etc.

Take this Home
Are we fundamentally the same people that roamed the earth 1000 years ago, and also the same as our neighbors across the globe? I'm saying yes: in my experience creating who I become and what I do with my life, I find I am not the first one in this boat.

The take home lesson, for me in my life, has been an improved view of the people I interact with, and a more honest view of myself. It also helps me to better critique the trends I see in society around me, and see through some of the confusion. Do you think there is anything fundamentally important that has changed in the last 1000 or so years? What should be the take home lesson?

Appendix A
This is a pro-active response to a few things that I expect most people would suggest have changed in the last 1000 or so years.
  • We're more civilized now than we used to be: less wars and generally nicer to each other, etc. Nope.
  • Modern communications let's us communicate with more people much faster than before. Still, I suspect the number of people with which we have close relationships is not larger than it has been -- we only have so much emotional relationship budget.
  • My mother lives a few hundred miles away, further than families used to be apart. And I fly around now in my car at 70mph, much faster than the foot or horse we used to depend on. Combined though, my mother lives less than half a day away -- suddenly not so atypical.
  • What about our rights? Unfortunately, there are some truths which are only taken seriously when stated by select people. Fortunately, I claim to be able to make the statement I'm about to, as I am a part of a minority group which has been significantly persecuted in the recent past. My heritage is still very near to me. With those credentials, I say that nothing has changed in the way of "rights," even in the last 1000 or even 3000 years. Always there have been large numbers of people who have been repressed, prejudiced against, persecuted, etc. Each individual has had some set of rights. It's never been as much as we think it should be -- always some group should have more. Always there have been struggles to relieve such repressions etc. Sure, in our time we have more rights for this group and for that group than we used to. Don't get me wrong, I am not saying we shouldn't continue to work for more rights for all, and equality and all that. Still, I claim that life for the individual has always included various degrees of freedoms, repressions, persecutions, prejudices, etc. It's always been part of life to struggle and to be influenced more than we like by others. And unfortunately, life has always been unfair.
  • We know more now than people dd years ago, but there is still so much to learn. Our education systems are getting poorer -- it has always taken an "endowed" person to get an above average education. We all influence some people who know less than us, and are influenced by people who know more than us. We still have a hard time figuring out who knows and who just thinks they know.
  • My house has insulation, which wasn't common 1000 years ago. But I'm much more of a baby than people were back then, especially when it comes to wet toes and cold fingers.
  • I have better food available to me now than people did 1000 years ago. Now we're talking! :)
I do think that the medical and health related advances of the centuries have had real impact on our daily lives, for good. While I fully expect there will always be some form of sickness and death, we have less now and we live healthier lives longer now than we used to. If only we could live our lives today happier than those in the past, but that's a topic for a future post.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

An Experiment in Commentary

The "Comments" section of a blog have lots of potential roles it can fill. I have been thinking for a few weeks now about the best thing to do here, and have decided I want "Comments" here on the Circular Ruins to have these characteristics:
  • I have no problem at all with comments expressing views differing from mine
  • but, I am not providing a sounding board for propagation of ignorance
  • This blog will not be a place for obscenities
  • I don't need to respond to all comments, but I would like to respond to many
  • I really want to hear your views and ideas, both about the contents of the posts and about anything else on your mind
  • I do not want anyone to feel embarrassed or hindered in expressing their views
So, I will attempt an experiment, to accomplish those points:
  • All posts will have commenting enabled
  • No comments will show up on the blog. I will read them, but they will not be visible to others.
I look forward to incorporating your ideas in my future posts, and to composing posts responding to differing views etc. Please let me know what you think of this, and please use it, as I value your comments.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Why "The Circular Ruins"

It's probably time to introduce myself.

Passing Shadows
In an experience not unique to me, I found myself a freshman in college, taking an exam on a short story that I hadn't read. The story was "The Circular Ruins" byJorges Borges. Trying to bluff and fake my way through the test, not having a clue what it was about, I encountered a question about the meaning of this statement in the story: "I realized I was but a passing shadow in another man's dream." (at least that's how I remember the question, my favorite translation phrases the statement slightly different).

The setting in my life at that time was such that one possible meaning immediately lept to mind with perfect clarity and real impact -- the statement was pure genius. I knew exactly what that statement meant, wrote about it, totally failed the exam, and my life was never the same since. I later read the story and found that it didn't at all mean what I thought it did, but mymis-interpretation had sparked an insight that would not leave. That statement was genius.

I have a pretty big life: complicated, involved, lots of players, lots of issues, lots of factors, big dreams, big experiences, big interactions with many people. When I looked around that exam room, I realized that every single person in there had a life every bit as big as mine. In Boston for the 4th of July one year, I was part of over 750 thousand people in a crowd on the banks of the Charles river, and every single one of those people had a life at least as big as mine. That's a whole lotta life, a really big lot.

My life as I see it is only through my perceptions of it. And all the big pieces of my big life are of course, just the way I see them.

I had a wonderful roommate in college who was a big part of my life for years. Yet now, the river runs, and we've moved on (we still keep in touch). Looking back, that passing part of my life made an impact on me. But the real insight is the reverse: I was just a passing shadow in another man's dream. The checkout lady at the grocery store looked like a rough day, so I made her laugh. But I was just a passing shadow, in her dream.

Seeing this has changed my interactions with people fundamentally, and significantly. In ways that are very hard to express. One thing is this: I'm glad Imis-read that quote -- if I could go back, I'd fail that exam again in a heart-beat.

The Circular Ruins
I highly recommend you find a comfy quiet place where you can read slowly and think about what you're reading, and read The Circular Ruins byJorges Borges. It probably won't be life changing, but it is high quality literature. Borges writes rich stories with astounding symbolism, but it's still a fine story even if you prefer not to catch any of it.

In The Circular Ruins, the main character goes to the circular ruins and creates: A creation that comes from within, but ends taking on a life of its own, A creation born of his love, blood, sweat, and tears, and years of constant exertion. Through his creation he makes a profound discovery about himself.

This blog is one of my circular ruins. Perhaps one day I'll see someone I know.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Proposing A Celebration

Jorge Borges is a writer whom I have enjoyed for many years, and I will occasionally include in this blog a few posts about some of his gems and their influence in my life. But today I want to write about one particular cacophony (see the quote heading this blog) that I've been thinking about lately which would benefit from some clarity: the debate regarding "gay marriage." I am against it, and I'm detailing here a few concrete arguments why:
  • There are people in this world who classify, by some random metric, as "kleptomaniacs." These are perfectly wonderful people, who have desires, for whatever reason, to steal without rational motivations: it's just a drive they feel and it's not their fault. We as a society continue to love these people, while not condoning this behavior. And we do wonderful things to help encourage these people to make right actions regardless of their desires. I have friends who classify themselves as homosexual, yet they chose not to act on their desires -- and as a consequence, I have tremendous respect for them. Everyone on earth struggles to resist some natural desires they have, and it is a very important part of life. I applaud all efforts to chose right in spite of our desires, by anyone and everyone, regardless of the specific personal flavor these desires may take.
  • Regardless of our personal beliefs, all people (with only a few exceptions) share a belief of sorts in a notion of "loving other people." This includes me having love for my father. Just because I "love" someone does not mean that it is right to express that love in sexual ways. And me not being able to have sex with someone does not in any way restrict my ability to "love" them. If I have testicular cancer does that reduce my ability to love my wife? or my parents? or my children? No. Sex is not a pre-requisite for love, even the purest forms of it.
  • "Marriage" has historically, until the last portion of a century or so, been all about seeking sanction on a union from some sort of religious figure. Why on earth would an atheist want to get married in the first place? that's hypocritical. The only gay people concerned about being married are people who believe in some sort of a God character, while simultaneously believing that this character condones sexual deviance.  Now, in the recent years of our civilizations, there have been confounding issues of various things being tied to "marriage" which are unfortunate, including the "marriage tax," insurance programs, etc.  This is unfortunate and is an issue that should be addressed without discrimination.  But that does not mean marriage should be sullied, it means we should fix this other problems other ways.
  • If you want to play the civil rights card, then let's play it: marriage is not a right, it never has been; it has always been restricted by a fair variety of laws in this country and others. Civil rights have always been, and always should be, properly countered by the state insomuch as you shall not be allowed to take actions harming others or reducing their rights. The children on this planet have a right to be raised in a home that is not sullied by physical abuse, mental abuse, sexual deviancy, etc. Therefore the civil rights card actually says we should not have gay marriages, because gay marriage infringes on the rights of other people. And not having gay marriage does not reduce anyone's rights: marriage was never a right in the first place, to anyone.
Everyone on earth has struggles with various tendencies and desires that are best not acted upon. What's the right thing to do about the gay marriage issue? I think we should have a designated International Celebrate Self Control Day, in celebration of every individual who chooses to be more than their tendencies, whatever the flavor. Be more than your tendencies, and celebrate the strides of everyone in their personal endeavors. Everyone struggles, except those who have given up. Don't give up.

I am trying hard to not give up.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Irritation Threshold Drift

Last weekend I went camping with my wife and our children. As I was the one who, on accident, left the camp stove at home then I was the one who had to make all the meals, over the fire. Morning... in the skillet... pancake batter getting rained on -- yes, it was a very rainy morning. And I had a big ol' smile on my face, one of those deep smiles that goes all the way to my heart. Part of it was because I sometimes like the rain (but nothing wrecks a camping trip for me like wet toes), but part of it was because this symbolized a bit of a personal victory for me, as this essay will explain.

It starts with my car: It has a squeak. It's not a serious squeak, just an irritating one -- as in: it drives me nuts. If you told me you could fix it for $5, I would give you $7.50 and invite you to keep the change. But if you said you could fix it for $50,000 then I would continue to just live with it. Somewhere between $5 and $50,000 is a line, a threshold of sorts. On the one side of the line I "live with it" and on the other side I do what it takes to remove the irritation.

Just a couple years ago I was in graduate school. I finally graduated and got a "real job." My income rose a bit, but my wife and I have remained true to our desires to not succumb to "lifestyle escalation:" We like the simple wholesome life; we like to live debt free, like taking saving and financial security seriously; we don't like indulging in general, nor waste; we like growing some of our own food and being self-sufficient to some extent. We left grad school happy, and still are.

But a couple years have passed since then, and I've been observing something odd in my life: a drift in my irritation thresholds. It used to be, when the threads came out in that one part of my winter glove and the snow got under there, that I would live with it for a while longer. Of course, at some point I would decide it was a better use of my life to get some "new" gloves (often from the thrift store). I still do that, but the number of threads that needs to be out before I make the transition has mysteriously shrunk a little over the last couple years.

I'm no more "indulgent" than I used to be -- just trying to keep my fingers warm. I'm no more picky about my shoes -- just avoiding the ones that hurt my feet. I'm no more a car snob than I used to be -- just wanting one that doesn't have that squeak. I'm no more a mansion lover than I used to be -- just don't want the irritating problem of not having enough space. I'm not the sort of rich guy that has his own jet just for fun -- I just hate standing in lines at the airport and had to do something about it. And suddenly (ok, so I don't have a jet, or a mansion, or a new car, or new shoes, or even new gloves for that matter), suddenly I find myself sympathizing with some portion of the "lifestyle of the rich" which I had always eschewed: it is that little portion of their lifestyle which is attributable to Irritation Threshold Drift -- why put up with an irritation if it's essentially free to fix it?

Wanna know something that irritates me all to pieces:? Finding myself more sympathetic to lifestyle escalation than I used to be. Argh! It means I'm choosing to be wimpier than I was just a few years ago -- and this hurts double hard as my body gets creakier already: I don't want to be an old wimpy guy... do I? What's wimpy about getting that squeaky part of my car fixed "for free?" Anybody would consider me nuts to not get it fixed if it were free.

My definition of “essentially free” has drifted. As a consequence, the threshold for when I decide to pay for removing an irritation has drifted. And I find myself sympathetic to that. But Irritation Threshold Drift is multi-faceted: Another side is “mind over matter...."

And so, standing there in the rain, I decided I could pull out some "Zen over body" skills and not let the rain in my pancakes bother me so much. And in fact it wasn't so hard, hence my personal victory and the satisfaction. Being soaked to the bone somehow makes me feel "alive" -- as long as my toes are dry. And therein lies the rub: Some portion of Irritation Threshold Drift lies in our minds and is rewarding to conquer (like standing in the rain); some portion is very difficult to master (like wet toes, or being hungry because the soup kitchen is out of food this weekend); and some portion is in that nebulous region in the middle (like deciding when a pair of jeans is too worn for me to keep wearing).

It comes down to Irritation Threshold Drift having two components: changes in the relative cost (caused by changes in my income) and changes in my head (mind over matter). I only have limited mental control over what irritates me, and sometimes I can use money to reduce or remove an irritation. Being aware of these two factors, and their limitations, empowers me to control the drift -- to some extent.

Irritation is "life" and it's good to be alive. But I still hate hiking with wet toes.


Everything in this essay up till now was originally written with a focus on my money management, as a context. But my wonderful friend pointed out that it actually applies to all of our irritation thresholds -- when is the noise from the kids "too much" and when can I let it go? In these areas my natural drift has been in the opposite direction: I'm more patient than I used to be. But perhaps "grumpy old men" come from the direction of that natural drift reversing at some point in life -- when it becomes essentially "free" to remove the irritation, perhaps. I'd like to see that now and take more control over my drifting, before I end up a creaky grumpy old man. I think this quote summarizes well:

"Both abundance and lack [of abundance] exist simultaneously in our lives, as parallel realities. It is always our conscious choice which secret garden we will tend . . . when we choose not to focus on what is missing from our lives but are grateful for the abundance that's present — love, health, family, friends, work, the joys of nature, and personal pursuits that bring us [happiness]—the wasteland of illusion falls away and we experience heaven on earth." --- Sarah Ban Breathnach, in John Cook, comp., The Book of Positive Quotations, 2nd ed. (2007), 342.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

You need 900 Stone to build this.

Here's an easy simple plan that works for everyone -- not only will it make you rich quickly, it'll make you happy too!

Seriously though, when it comes to Resource Management, below is what I've come to. See how it gels with you.

Let's pretend that I have a list of everything on earth that I might want to spend my money on, broken down, itemized, and prioritized. Vastly oversimplifying and leaving out lots of details, let's say it looks like this:
  1. nourish my body
  2. pay mortgage payment
  3. pay $2k into my RothIRA
  4. treat myself to a great meal once a month
  5. pay $x extra down on my mortgage
  6. save $y for a trip to Alaska (our 100th anniversary is coming up)
  7. save $z for that new car I'll need next year
  8. pay another $1k into my RothIRA
  9. save another $1k to make Alaska extra special
  10. save another $w to upgrade that car to the one I _really_ want
  11. max out my RothIRA
  12. put an extra $100k toward the mortgage
  13. ... etc.

Note that "mortgage" shows up a few times. At one priority level is the bare minimum, at another priority is the amount extra that I would need to pay in order to meet my personal goal of paying the house off on a 12 year schedule, and at a third priority is the amount I'd just love to be paying if I ever could.

Now, assuming I did that right, I can take the money I get each month and just start at the top and go down the list until I run out of money. With this list, money management is now trivial! Clearly there are only two problems with this list:
  • When I break a tooth and need a crown and get to decide between the solid gold or cheaper porcelain, which do I choose?
  • There's no way such a list could actually be created. :(

The good news is this: I have a halfway decent idea about how far down the list I'm going to get this month. Most of the list before that point I can lump into "likely to happen" and most of the list after that point I can lump into "not likely to happen." The really interesting part is the little window right around where I expect to end up. Basic Groceries -- gonna happen. I don't have to worry about exactly where it relates in relation to "pay the water bill." Extravagant Groceries -- not likely to happen. I don't have to worry about exactly where it relates to "pay extra $100k on the house." Did I say "Groceries" twice? Therein lies the cool part. Let me explain.

Using the list above, let's pretend that I expect I'll be able to get all the way down to having #8 taken care of, but only a small portion of #9. Now, all my financial decisions are trivial: at the grocery store making a purchasing decision, all I have to think about is how this decision will move that line. Wheaties or generic? -- extra-special-Alaska. That's the real question: what do I want more: Wheaties, or extra-special-Alaska. In fact, all my financial decisions are about one thing: extra-special-Alaska. If I do well enough early in the year, then I can make the rest of my financial decisions based on #10: upgraded car. If I do poorly, then I have to start eating into #8 instead.

There are five key points:
  1. The details of what's in "likely to happen" are actually important, just not on a daily scale. We need to be aware of where our money is going, and looking in there for places we can be more efficient and/or make adjustments. We need to pay attention. Also, we need to make sure that we put in this category the things necessary to meet our goals, and we need goals.
  2. The details in "not likely to happen" are also important. We need to be aware of our dreams and not forget them. When it's goal setting time, we need to look at these dreams and decide to take steps towards them.
  3. In this simplified case the window is trivial, but in real life we need to make tough prioritization decisions (more in a 529 or more in a 401k? one more dollar towards my 2 month behind mortgage or one more dollar towards my CC debt?). And sometimes there may be a fair number of things inside the window -- this is reality we live in, no scheme will get us away from the hard parts.
  4. They say "the greatest cause of unhappiness is giving up what we want most for what we want now." I'm not certain that this is the absolute "greatest," but I've become convinced that it ranks up there for sure. Wheaties or generic or extra-special-Alaska? Alaska is years off, Wheaties are right here. This is the core issue that we all face every day. Some days we do better than others; some days are rough. We're people, it's life.
  5. This actually works for most any resource management case I've come across: money, time, people, garden space, etc.

Point #4 is the biggest one, the hardest one, and the one we all have to deal with forever. It can also be a very rewarding one: giving up what I want now for what I want most gets me what I want most, and it also gives me a huge self-boost at the same time.

That said, remember the two complaints I had about the original list (above)? Note that both of these complaints are now non-issues: I never actually had to make the list (except for the portion in the little window), and when something unexpected comes up, I can still make my decisions based on their impact on the motion of that line. It's all about extra-special-Alaska baby!